Without wading too deep into any technical lit-crit battles over the so-called death of the author, I think I can safely endorse the rule that, in general, one should not criticize a writer’s work by attacking his personal life. If an author happens to have been an adulterer, a miser, or a scoundrel as well as a literary genius, he should not thereafter have to have his genius hyphenated. John O’Hara was a genius, not a genius-slash-midget-punching-belligerent-drunk. (You can look that one up.) This holds true even when the author’s failings directly contradict his most notable literary accomplishments. Evelyn Waugh was never very good at practicing Christian forgiveness, but he still wrote about it wonderfully.
But this rule only applies up to a point, past which the reader’s sympathy just gives out. Yukio Mishima was enough of a genius that one could excuse his unseemly fascination with nationalism and violence—right up until the moment he and his followers entered the army base at Ichigaya, took its commandant hostage at swordpoint, and tried to stage a military coup. Eccentricity is one thing, active fascism is another.
I don’t have a comprehensive theory of where this line should be drawn, but I think most responsible readers would admit it exists. I call it the Rousseau threshold, because his case is the one I consider the most clear-cut. The way he treated his common-law wife, his children, and his friends makes it impossible for me to take him seriously as a humanitarian thinker. The fact that he abandoned all his children does not make Émile ironic, it makes it worthless.
When I wrote last month that Noah Millman was stupid to suggest that Tolstoy, of all people, could teach modern conservatives a thing or two about what conservatism really means, many readers accused me of committing the very fallacy I just disavowed, confusing the novelist with the man. I agree that well-drawn fictional characters like War and Peace’s Kutuzov (Millman’s Exhibit A) can come to life and break free of their creator’s intentions. But I also think that, in this particular case, Tolstoy went over the Rousseau threshold. I don’t mean that he was a bad man. I just mean that his behavior suggests he was no more able to understand “the conservative temperament” than Rousseau was able to understand brotherly love.
I related a few of the anecdotes that brought me around to that view in my earlier post, but to drive the point home, here is a collection from The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff. (Each paragraph is a separate quotation.)
Sophia’s nursing did not go well: she developed mastitis, and a wet nurse had to be engaged. Tolstoy could not hide his disappointment and avoided the nursery with an expression of “morose animosity” on his face. Sophia felt that he blamed her for failing to live up to his Rousseauian ideal of a healthy mother and wife. That summer she noted in her diary, “I am in agonizing pain. Lyova is murderous. … He wants to wipe me from the face of the earth because I am suffering and am not doing my duty, I want not to see him at all because he is not suffering but just goes on writing.”
He wrote his own curriculum and primers, believing that “two generations of all Russian children, from tsars’ to peasants’, will study with the aid of this primer alone.”
He quarreled with his relative Alexandrine, who was stunned by his abuse of Orthodoxy. He called it a bunch of lies; when she protested, he left Petersburg without saying good-bye.
She [Sophia] did not care for humanity as an abstraction, but sympathized with people who were close to her, not only her family. Over the years, she had provided free medical help in Yasnaya. Although she was helping the very poor whom he idealized, Tolstoy ignored her efforts. “In all this I was alone because Lev Nikolaevich rejected medicine; not only did he have little sympathy for my work, he mocked it, which upset me terribly.”
Despite renouncing property, he remained at the estate, which Sophia had to manage as long as he continued to work there.
The anecdotes in my earlier post focused on Tolstoy’s intellectual arrogance, in particular his disturbing conviction that he had gotten Christ’s teachings right where the Orthodox Church and even Christ himself had bungled them up. These highlight his personal arrogance. One of the central aspects of the conservative temperament is humility—before God, before fate, before tradition, before institutions—and at a certain point we have to start wondering whether Tolstoy had any grasp of the concept.
And to those who would point out that Dostoevsky, whom I like, was an insane egotist who pawned his wife’s valuables for gambling money, I would simply say that, unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky’s moral failings were exactly in line with his authorial persona. His having been a mad gambler makes The Brothers Karamazov more credible, not less. And anyway he gave up gambling in middle age. Incidentally, Dostoevsky’s last notebook included this assessment of his fellow literary giant: “To what extent man has worshipped himself (Lev Tolstoy).” Sound judgment.